John “Rooney” Sweeney was better known for his unpredictability and for making good copy for the 19th Century press than for anything he did on the baseball field. He remains one of the few Major League players for which a date of death is unknown.
Born in New York City in 1858, Sweeney’s first professional experience was in 1881 in the Eastern Championship Association, a league which only lasted one season. Like many of the short-lived leagues of baseball’s first 30 years, the ECA had no fixed schedules and no control over player movement making it impossible to keep full rosters. Sweeney played with four teams in the league: The Brooklyn Atlantics, New York Mets, New York Quick Steps and New York New Yorks.
There’s no record of where Sweeney played the following season, but in 1883 he played for Camden Merritts in the Interstate Association and made his Major League debut with the Baltimore Orioles in the American Association.
Although there is no other source for the claim, a 1910 article on the origin of catcher’s equipment in The Freeman claims that Sweeney was playing on the West Coast in Oakland for part of 1883 and was one of the first catchers to wear a mask, “The day he placed it on his head and went up behind the bat he was ‘Booed’ until he took it off in disgust. Later the fans began to see the benefits of the wire covering.”
Sweeney then played with the Baltimore Monumentals in the Union Association in 1884. He appeared in three games for the St. Louis Maroons in the National League in 1885 before being released.
According to The Sporting Life:
“When Rooney Sweeney was recently released by (Maroons owner Henry) Lucas he had quite a roll. So before leaving St. Louis, just to blow in a dollar or two, Rooney… hired a fine team of grays and a park wagon from a livery stable. This was at ten o’clock Thursday morning. At three o’clock Friday morning, eleven hours behind time, a messenger boy drove the team into the stable. Both the grays looked ready for the bone-yard and the owner at that moment would have sold them for a song. Their whole appearance showed that they had been driven nearly to death.
“Several men in the stable armed themselves with clubs and horsewhips and started out in search of Rooney. He must have been told of their coming, however, for before daybreak he took a train. It was lucky for him that the train started out before the livery men caught him.”
Rooney’s never again appeared in the Majors, but was said to have joined a team in Troy, New York after leaving St. Louis. In 1887 and ’88 he played in the New England League, and then dropped out of sight, and apparently out of baseball, again.
In 1890, Sweeney signed with the London Tecumsehs in the International Association.
Official records indicate that he only appeared in one game—The Chicago Tribune, on May 12 reported on his debut:
“Rooney Sweeney’s return to the diamond was not a success. In his opening game nine bases were stolen on him and he had three errors.”
Things went downhill from there. Sweeney was released in mid-May but apparently remained in London. In June, it was reported that he had been arrested for stealing $40 from London pitcher James Maguire.
He received four months in jail and as the judge handed down the sentence The Sporting Life said, “Sweeney wept copiously.”
It was reported that Sweeney spent his time in jail writing letters to friends, one of which found its way into several newspapers. Regarding the crime he was convicted of, Sweeney wrote:
“We were all playing poker in a room up here and there was a big pot on the table. Just then somebody flung a big black cat square on the table. Of course the cat was scared and in her hurry to get away scattered the chips every which way and knocked down the stacks that were standing in front of the players. Well, I just grabbed what I thought was my share, the same as any man would do, and it got me into jail, that’s all.”
After his release from jail, there are no records that indicate he ever again played in a professional game, but nearly every article written about him mentions that “He is not averse to playing baseball again.”
In 1892, Sweeney became involved in boxing, claiming he was going to manage fighters. Just weeks later he was reported he was through with boxing and said:
“I thought ballplayers was (sic) the ungreatfullest (sic) lot on earth, but they ain’t in it with fighters.”
And of course, the articles said, “Rooney is going to try his hand again at catching.”
Within a year of Sweeney’s foray into the boxing world both of his parents and his brother, New York City police officer Jeremiah Sweeney, died, and it was reported that he had inherited a great deal of property in New York and New Jersey, but of course in between collecting rents he said he’d like to play baseball again.
Sweeney was next heard from in September of 1897 when The Sporting Life said:
“John Sweeney, a once famous base ball player, more popularly known as “Rooney” Sweeney is dying in the Hudson Street Hospital as the result of injuries sustained by a fall in Battery Park last night.
“For some past Sweeney has been assisting the boatmen at the Battery…last night, while seated on the excursion pier, he was seized with an epileptic fit, and fell heavily to the ground, sustaining a concussion of the brain. An ambulance was rung up, and he was hurried to the hospital. Sweeney has played with many of the principal base ball clubs both in the East and West, being at one time a member of the famous Metropolitan nine. He was also identified during his career with the St. Louis and Indianapolis.”
But that might not have been the end for Sweeney. Three years later it was reported that he was working as a “Fireman on a tug boat.”
Sadly, that’s the last bit of information about the enigmatic Sweeney. Whether he had succumbed to his illness in 1897 or he recovered and ended up aboard that tug boat we may never know. No records of his death are available.